2018 has been a big year for Kenny Wayne Shepherd so far. For an artist who lives to play in front of an audience, he has been out on tour for much of the year, promoting and performing songs from the 2017 #1 album “Lay It On Down”. And after a 6 year wait, fans in Australia will finally get a chance to see for themselves, just why the sound of the blues can have so many sides to it, with a diversity that is helping it reach the mainstream audiences around the world. The Rockpit’s Sean Bennett caught up with Kenny on a rare day off between shows, as he talked about his love for Australia, his favorite instrument in his collection and which fellow guitar players he’d want at his dinner table…
Sean: Hey Kenny. How you doing today?
KWS: Hey, I’m good, how are you man?
Sean: Really good thank you. Firstly, belated congratulations from us all at The Rockpit, for last year’s amazing release “Lay It on Down”. Wonderful album…
KWS: Thank you. I really appreciate that man. We are really proud of it. It’s a great, great record and possibly one of our best that we’ve done and we are playing a fair amount of that record in the show and on the tour, and it’s going down so well with the audiences, so we are really happy with it.
Sean: It’s such a diverse album too…
KWS: Yeah my intention was to have a diversifying sounding album, but not to the point that it was erratic or something like that. When you listen to it from beginning to end it all makes sense – there’s still a common thread. But we tried to visit different genres to take blues music in different directions, which is what I’ve tried to do over the years, pretty consistently, but usually it’s more with mixing blues and rock n roll. But on this album we pulled a bit of country influence into a couple of songs, a little R n B on a couple, then there’s the rock and also the straight up blues. So it does have a wide range of sounds and vibes, textures and grooves but it still feels a cohesive body of material.
Sean: What I find great, is that as my musically tastes change and evolve with age, I find myself listening to more blues. And that’s down to the younger artists like yourself & Joe (Bonamassa) who are making the blues more accessible so-to-speak – great albums generate more airplay which then get everyone wanting to see the live shows.
KWS: Well a lot of people like you are starting to branch out a little bit from their musical comfort zones and considering looking into the blues. And one of the reasons why is because all the different genres of music, if you trace them back to their roots, they all kind of stem from the blues in the first place. Rock n roll is the bi-product of blues music.
Sean: So with the introduction of different genres into your music, has your writing processes changed as you’ve matured as a song writer and musician?
KWS: I don’t think it’s changed too much. I mean the process for me hasn’t really changed with the way I write. I mean generally it starts as a musical idea… I sit around and come up with grooves, guitar licks, things like that. I’ll record them and save them for later until I’m ready to write lyrics. Then I’ll sit down with some of the other people I write with, talk about ideas and then pick a song and start honing in on it. So usually it starts with the music, then lyrics and then melody and chords progressions and so forth. But sometimes a song can come from a lyrical idea or title. I mean if you look back over my career, even right from the beginning, I’ve focused on writing songs with what I believe are quality lyrics, so I can tell good stories and have great choruses that people want to sing along to, and in that regard that has never changed – it’s been like that since day one.
Sean: Is song writing a constant thing for you? Or do you try to set time aside specifically to do that?
KWS: Yeah, I do try to set aside time to write, but if I’m out on the road the convenience of modern technology comes into play (laughs)… I’ll just whip out my phone and record the idea instantly, then I have it there to revisit at a later time, when I’m ready to write again.
Sean: Modern technology at its best… (laughs)
KWS: Yeah I know. There’s probably 100’s of song ideas that I had earlier in my career that never got written because I had no way to record the idea. When your younger you don’t worry too much because you think you’ll remember it later… but then the next day it’s gone!
Sean: You’re having a well-earned day off today but you’ve been doing some shared dates with Beth Hart & her band. How’s that been going?
KWS: Yeah we’ve been touring together for about a month now, and that been going really well. Most of the shows have been selling out, which is fantastic. The audiences have been enjoying both bands, because even though we come from a similar place musically, the bands are so different.
Sean: She’s just announced a full Australian Tour next February (2019) which is pretty exciting but before that a certain Kenny Wayne Shepherd hits our shores for a 3 nights of shows in Sydney on the 4th, Brisbane on the 5th & Melbourne on the 6th of October. How excited are you to come back after 6 years?
KWS: Extremely excited. I love Australia and always have, since I first visited back in the 1990’s. I’ve always had a great time… I mean, even on my very first trip there, I had such a fantastic time that I decided to celebrate it by getting a tattoo (laughs). Every day, on my body, I have a reminder of my first trip to Australia. And of course, I have an Australian wife. So, I married an Australian and we have been back over on holidays too to visit her family, as well as when I tour. So, Australia is a big part of my life and it’s important that we get over to play for the fans there and continues to build our fan base there… I mean, when my 2nd record “Trouble is…” came out I actually have a gold album hanging on my wall at my house because it went gold when we were in Australia. I know we have a lot of fans there and this genre of music is big there, but in my opinion, it shouldn’t have been 6 years between visits – and I don’t plan on letting that happen again. It’s important to me that I come there and have a valid touring career and then it also opens up more opportunities for my wife and kids to come and visit extended family too. So it’s a win-win for situation for everyone (laughs).
Sean: Certainly a long way to travel and fire off 3 shows in 3 nights…hard work I bet.
KWS: Yeah, but we’ve had such a busy first half of 2018. We’ve mixed it up with being in the studio and touring around the States, and of course I need to fit in personal time to be with my family. So when this opportunity arose to come and play some shows I had to grab it because it’s so important to me. We’ve managed to arrange shows in 3 of the major cities there, but I’m hoping that this will be a precursor to an even more extensive tour in the not too distant future.
Sean: With 8 studio albums under your belt, how hard is it selecting a set list when you haven’t toured somewhere in a while?
KWS: Yeah it is challenging, so what we are currently doing is still promoting the new album so there are a few songs from “Lay it on Down” in the set. But also I am aware that there are fans everywhere, not just Australia, who have been listening to me for over 20 years now and they have their favourites. So I try and select the songs that I think the audience will most look forward to hearing. It’s trying to strike a balance between playing the new material and hopefully the songs off previous releases that everyone likes. I also like to try to change it up for fans that come to more than one show but also for the band, so we get to play different songs on a nightly basis. It also depend on how long we are allowed to play – some venues have sound curfews – so sometimes we can play for over 2 hours and fit a whole bunch of stuff into the show.
Sean: Just to throw you off balance for a second, if I booked a table for you and 3 other guitar players, past and present, at a restaurant for 2 hours, who would you invite?
KWS: Well Jimi Hendrix, for me, would obviously have a seat at the table. I wouldn’t mind having dinner with Stevie Ray Vaughan – I got to meet him a few times but it would be great to spend an evening with him too. Hmmm, number 3… you know what, it would probably be one of the guys who I never got to meet before he died or even get to see him play and that would be Albert King, so he would be my final guest at the table.
Sean: Wow, I’d love to be sat at the table next to you guys just listening to the conversation. Looking at your website there is a wonderful section about your guitars – But I have to ask about the ‘61’ Fender Strat you affectionally call “THE ONE”. Surely she gets a seat on the plane next to you…
KWS: Look… that guitar has had a seat on a flight in the past, but it is so valuable to me that it doesn’t fly anymore, when I leave the US. So I have a replica I had Fender make of it to take when I fly. But if I travel by bus then the real thing comes with me. I just don’t ever want it out of my sight – it would have to be handcuffed to my arm (laughs). I just like to pick it up from my house or office, wherever it may be, and just take it with me to wherever I’m going, and then return in exactly the same fashion.
Sean: It has a great story attached to it too…
KWS: Yeah, well I first found it when I was 16 years old, in the Guitar Centre in Los Angeles. I was with my father and the moment I took it down from the wall and played it I knew it was the one for me. It just felt perfect in every way, except the price. I didn’t have the money then to buy it… there was no way I could afford it. So I had to walk away from it. And then a year later, we were back in Los Angeles so we shot back in to see what they had in the way of guitars, and there it still was, hanging on the wall. So I took it down and played it again and it still felt as great as the previous time. But I still didn’t have the money to buy it because I just wasn’t making any money at that time. So I refused to leave without it, because I knew the next time I came back it would not be there. So my dad, our lawyer and one of the guys who worked at the record company agreed to go thirds and buy the guitar for me, on the condition I paid them back (laughs)… and I have paid them back now. And now it’s mine and will be mine until I’m not here anymore.
Sean: It looks so worn and used that even looking at it says it has history…
KWS: I recently named it too. It’s been called “The One” for so long because I just couldn’t settle on a name for it. No name that I could come up with seemed appropriate. And finally after years, so many years, of not having a name I decided on one and I’ve called her “Martha”. It’s a nice strong for a woman and popular name from the era which the guitar was made.
Sean: That’s cool. So many great guitars on your website www.kennywayneshepherd.net and all with wonderful stories attached. So what would I find you have recently been listening to if I hacked into your iTunes account?
KWS: “Fandango!” by ZZ Top… actually no, the very last one was “Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo Vol 3” by James Brown when I was exercising but for my previous workout it was ZZ Top, “Fandango!”, which is one half studio, one half live album and one of my favourites.
Sean: Taking you back to your childhood, was there much musical influences in the family home?
KWS: My mum had a piano that was always out of tune that nobody played (laughs), but other than that no, not really. But I was surrounded by music because my dad was on the radio as a disc jockey and managed radio stations so we went to every concert that came through town, so I heard music constantly. Then when I was a kid I got a little toy acoustic guitars that had nylon strings and I would play them until I literally wore them out. And then at the age of 7, when I met Stevie Ray Vaughan for the first time, I got my first electric guitar and it went from there. But there certainly wasn’t instruments laying around the house when I was a kid, like there are now in our house for our children.
Sean: So definitely budding future musicians in the Shepherd household?
KWS: Oh yeah, some of them are having music lessons… focusing on the piano right now. There’s certainly no shortage of guitars around the place that’s for sure (laughs). We have a little drum kit too and keyboards and stuff. The music is in their blood but I will never try to influence them one way or the other – it’s totally up to them what they want to do with their lives.
Sean: Are you able to walk past a guitar at home without picking it up?
KWS: I always have the urge to pick it up but I don’t usually get the opportunity to, because of having such a large family. I go from one job straight to the next – from playing music on tour or in the studio to helping my wife, which is a full time job, looking after our family. It’s just such a busy life with so many kids, but it’s fantastic and I wouldn’t change a thing. So if I do get a chance to pick up one of my guitars and start to play, then the kids all come running in and trying to take the guitar away from me, so they can have a go – so I don’t get to play for very long (laughs).
Sean: So it’s been 11 years since the “10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads” documentary was released and so well received, what was the initial thinking behind that and was it a spiritual journey for you personally?
KWS: Yeah it was and it was also to show my appreciation to the genre, for the people who support blues music and to give them something special but also a show of respect to the artists out there who made it possible for me to do what I do. It’s one of the most significant thing I’ve been a part of, and certainly one of the most unique projects in the blues genre in recent years.
Sean: Due to its success are there any plans for a follow up?
KWS: Well yeah we are looking at that right now. We are just in the process of compiling a list of people we want to go see. But a lot of factors come into play like ‘who’s here’, ‘who’s available’, ’where are they located’, ’what kind of songs did they have’ – so there are a lot of logistics even before we put the list of names out there.
Sean: It’s certainly important to document these people, who were & still are iconic chapters in the history of the blues, before we lose them forever. From the past to the present, do you feel the industry has changed for the better or worse now that music is more readily accessible with internet download & streaming sites?
KWS: I think if you establish yourself as a live touring act it makes it easier, because so far they haven’t created a substitute for a live concert yet – if you want to see live music you have to buy a ticket. But certainly when I first started you could make a living selling records – I mean I’ve had several platinum albums in the States, which is 1,000,000 copies sold and if you hit platinum you’ve already passed gold which is 500,000 copies sold. So I have these gold & platinum discs on my wall and I just don’t believe there will be another opportunity like that for another blues artist with the way the industry is right now. People buy my albums & records but when they come see us play they always comment that we are better live than the recordings, so that’s created a reputation for us as a touring act that people want to come and see.
Sean: Talking of albums, when can we look forward to the next one?
KWS: Well, we’ve already been in the studio in March of this year and recorded it, so we are just putting the finishing touches to it now. So it will be ready to go when the time comes.
Sean: Finally, if you could be credited for any song every written, what would you want to be remembered for?
KWS: Voodoo Child by Hendrix. Ever since I put my band together that has always been the last song of our show. To me it’s one of the greatest guitar rock anthems ever written and it just never gets old for me.
Sean: A great song choice. Thank you for the chat. It’s been an absolute pleasure & privilege to talk to you, and been so interesting. On behalf of us all at The Rockpit we wish you safe travels for the rest of the tour and look forward to seeing you here in Australia in October. Thanks Kenny.
KWS: Thank you so much. It’s been great.